New Study Suggests We're All Basically Programmed to See Women as Objects

Co-starring: my thighs!
Publish date:
July 30, 2012
body acceptance, science, objectification, thigh pudge

I found this on my car the other day, and thought, “Yes, yes, yes, no, because I don’t wear jeans.”

If you often feel like you’re not psychologically capable of seeing your body not broken down into its component parts, it turns out you may be literally correct. A study published this week in the European Journal of Social Psychology looked at the way individuals process images of women and men, and found a striking difference between the two.

In the experiments, participants were shown an image of a fully clothed person from head to knee. Then they were shown two other images, each of a specific part of the person. One of these images would be slightly modified, the other was not. The participants then had to quickly indicate which of these parts they had seen before. What they found was that regardless of gender, women’s disembodied parts were far more readily recognized and remembered than men’s.

When presented with images of men, perceivers tended to rely more on "global" cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole. Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of "local" cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts.

[...] "Local processing underlies the way we think about objects: houses, cars and so on. But global processing should prevent us from that when it comes to people," Gervais said. "We don't break people down to their parts – except when it comes to women, which is really striking. Women were perceived in the same ways that objects are viewed."

So people are looking at your body like they do at a car. Does that make you feel AWESOME about yourself or WHAT?

While the study authors don’t go so far as to suggest why we process women’s bodies in this way, it seems pretty obvious to me that we see women as compilations of parts and not whole individuals because this is how women are frequently portrayed in media. It seems one of the things this research sought to investigate is whether this urge to view women as objects extends beyond media imagery and also affects how we all see normal real-life women every day. I don’t know why anyone would be surprised that it does, but hey, there’s scientific evidence for it now.

Is anyone 100 percent immune to this, really? We can even do it to ourselves. On Wednesday of this week, I spent my lunch break on the beach for some desperately needed relaxation time, and tweeted this picture to mark the unusual occasion in which I was tending to my own self-care.


Even after I did it, I thought, Huh, I just tweeted a picture of my thighs looming all unbodied and ominous, two pale fleshy monoliths lumbering up behind the innocent sunbathers in the background. That’s kinda weird, isn’t it? I mostly wanted to show where I was -- on the beach all sunny and feeling pretty chill for a bit -- but there are my thighs, taking over the image.

And I thought, Why am I looking at my thighs so hard?

This was, in fact, the second picture I took. The first image I chose not to tweet, because when I looked at it, this is what my mind did:

Whoops, I forgot to love myself unconditionally.

It’s not so much that I have an internal problem with my thigh pudge -- I think it’s kinda cute, which I know makes me weird -- but instead I thought, Do I really want to stick this on Twitter and potentially get trolled about it? Do I have the emotional strength right now to deal with that possibility? Also why is my thigh pudge asymmetrical? I found myself looking at this portion of my legs as though they were a separate thing, a distant object I could analyze and critique, and not a functional part of a whole -- my body -- that is more than the sum of its flab-riddled parts.

Most of the time I can resist seeing myself as a disheveled lump of imperfect elements, but being only human and living in this culture full-time it’s natural that I should occasionally slide into this kind of crappy thinking. Especially when I’m looking at pictures that are body part specific. It’s interesting to know this kind of perception of women’s bodies is common, but it’s even more interesting to realize that it is something we can change.

The study also demonstrated that even if this processing is habitual, that doesn’t mean it can’t be adjusted -- the good news is, when the experiment was modified to make it easier for participants to perceive the images of women globally, the body-part fixation seemed to be lessened.

Would there be an antidote to a perceiver's basic cognitive processes that lead women to be reduced and objectified? Researchers said some of the study's results suggested so. When the experiment was adjusted to create a condition where it was easier for participants to employ "global" processing, the sexual body part recognition bias appeared to be alleviated. Women were more easily recognizable in the context of their whole bodies instead of their various sexual body parts.

[...] "Our findings suggest people fundamentally process women and men differently, but we are also showing that a very simple manipulation counteracts this effect, and perceivers can be prompted to see women globally, just as they do men," Gervais said. "Based on these findings, there are several new avenues to explore."

While it’s a little scary to think that we are all so easily manipulated into seeing people as objects or not-objects, at least it’s not a perspective we’re locked into permanently, and it’ll be nifty to see what subsequent research this study inspires.

In the meantime, I’ll be on the beach, working on being present with my whole self, instead of just staring down at my thighs.